Operation Knospe

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This was the German programme to deploy and maintain meteorological teams on the north-west coast of Spitsbergen island off the north coast of German-occupied Norway (15 October 1941/23 August 1942).

The Treaty of Svalbard of 1920 included provision for international use of Spitsbergen for weather observation. A Norwegian possession, Spitsbergen was admirably sited for the gathering of meteorological data most important to Norwegian, Finnish, Danish and Soviet shipping, but also significant for the shipping of other northern hemisphere nations. The data were also important for the forecasting of weather in northern and central Europe.

In the later summer of 1941 the Anglo-Canadian ‘Gauntlet’ took control of Spitsbergen, and while acknowledging the international nature of the civilian meteorological effort put the island under martial law. Thus data from Spitsbergen’s weather stations were no longer available to the German navy to aid operations in the North Sea, North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean, and the forecasting of central European weather became considerably more problematic. The task of re-establishing a German meteorological capability in the Arctic was allocated to Generaladmiral Rolf Carls’s Marinegruppenkommando ‘Nord’. After initial consideration of creating a floating station had been discarded, Professor Hans-Robert Knöspel, the scientific head of the project, proposed a land-based weather station. (It should be noted that the names of all German weather stations established during World War II in the Arctic were derived from the name of their senior officer, and thus the first station on Spitsbergen was named ‘Knospe’).

In a collaborative effort with the Marinewaffen- und Ausbildungsbetrieb Hamburg, on 25 August 1941 the Marinegruppenkommando ‘Nord’ despatched two vessels from Kiel to Spitsbergen. Though nominally a weather ship, Sachsen was seen from the start as a transport. But when it became apparent that the delivery of radio equipment, power generators, fuel, sledges and other winter equipment, construction timber, scientific equipment and personnel could not be achieved by this vessel alone, the adapted trawler Fritz Homann was also allocated. After a detour via Tromsø in German-occupied Norway, on 15 October 1941 the vessels reached the planned base at Signehamna in the Lilliehöökfjord, where unloading lasted to mid-November. While exploring the nearby coast, Knöspel discovered two weather stations which had clearly been abandoned in some haste: burning coal fires, many items of domestic and scientific equipment, and extensive maps. Knöspel took only a very small proportion of what he found in the hope that the owners, should they return, would not notice and thereby be alerted to the German presence.

One of the reasons the decision had been taken to build the ‘Knospe’ weather station at Signehamna was its proximity to the former German geophysical observatory at Ebeltofthafen, allowing direct comparison of the collected data. It was only two days after the landing that the ‘Knospe’ station made its first observations, and full operations began on 1 November 1941. Other than Knöspel, the station’s team comprised the meteorologist Dr Walter Drees, the technical assistant Gustav Mönninghoff, the maintenance man Anton Pohoschaly Zima and the radio operator Johann Heinz Ackermann. During the winter of 1941/42 this team established a number of automatic weather stations capable of operation for a period of up to nine months without maintenance. Each of the devices made a daily transmission of air temperature, humidity, pressure and wind speed and direction, and by February 1942 the ‘Knospe’ station was transmitting hourly observations.

It had originally been intended that the ‘Knospe’ team should be recovered during the summer of 1942, but adverse weather combined with persistent disagreement between the Marinegruppenkommando ‘Nord’ and Knöspel about a number of operational issues to create a stream of delays. After discussions during the summer about the advisability of using a U-boat, flying boat or ship to collect the team, in August 1942 agreement was reached the use of a U-boat. Leutnant Siegfried Strelow’s U-435 arrived to collect the ‘Knospe’ team on 24 August in the small Ebeltofthamna bay of the Mitra peninsula, and on 31 August U-435 reached Narvik in German-occupied Norway.

The task of generating weather meteorological reports then passed to the ‘Nussbaum’ team, which was delivered to Spitsbergen on 15 October by U-377.